February 1, 2018

New Mexico House panel OKs bipartisan crime legislation

Photo Credit: eviloars cc

Democrats and Republicans rallied behind a package of crime and public safety legislation on Wednesday, lending a bipartisan stamp of approval to five very different bills that may not end long-running disputes over criminal sentencing or bail reform but which backers say represent a coordinated approach to one of the most pressing issues at the Roundhouse this year.

Including mostly noncontroversial pieces of legislation from both sides of the aisle, parts of the package won support from a disparate group including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Law Office of the Public Defender.

The bill would toughen sentences in some respects but could also lighten sentences for minor offenses.

The proposal would impose stiffer sentences for violent felons caught with a firearm while also ensuring some of the pettiest crimes — such as littering — are not punishable with jail time.

The measure would also expand behavioral health services to jail inmates with mental illnesses, provide bonuses for long-serving police officers and stiffen the rules requiring DWI offenders to have ignition interlock devices removed from their vehicles.

By rolling disparate bills together, leaders of the state House of Representatives marked out common ground on a topic that has been fiercely partisan but also a top priority.

The measure comes amid a flurry of proposals to increase sentences and even reinstate the death penalty. But criminal justice reform advocates have argued that tougher sentences will not deter crime and have countered that the solution for the state with the highest rate of property crime in the country must address New Mexico’s high rates of poverty as well as access to mental health treatment.

Rolling together pieces of both arguments might improve the bill’s prospects of making it through a Democrat-controlled Legislature and on to the desk of a Republican governor.

“This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all the things that need to be done to identify our public safety problem,” Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told the House Judiciary Committee.

But he argued this measure tries to take a broader approach to improving the criminal justice system.

Said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, “We’re not going to address crime [and] public safety unless we start looking at all of the different elements that affect public safety.”

Rolled into the package is a bill sponsored by Gentry that would effectively double the sentence for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 18 months to 3 years.

Lawmakers have offered various similar pieces of legislation in recent years. But this measure has been narrowed to only include felons who had been convicted of violent crimes.

On the other hand, the package of bills also includes a measure sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, to ensure a list of minor, nonviolent offenses are no longer punishable by jail time and instead only carry fines. The list includes littering, “coasting” and jaywalking.

An analysis by legislative aides suggested this could help save money spent on prosecuting and locking up suspects for nonviolent crimes.

However, a similar bill passed the Legislature only to meet the governor’s veto pen.

“I am not necessarily opposed to some of these penalty reductions; a sensible reduction for a limited number of minor offenses could ease some of the burdens that our courts and public defenders face,” Martinez wrote in her veto message.

But she raised concerns about some provisions, such as changes in laws against nude dancing in liquor establishments and parking in handicapped accessible spaces without the required placard.

Changing those laws went too far, Martinez wrote.

Those laws are not part of this latest bill, perhaps giving it a better chance of getting the governor’s signature.

Another facet, based on legislation initially sponsored by Gentry and Ely, would help jails screen inmates for mental health issues, connect them with treatment services and enroll those eligible in Medicaid before release to encourage them to continue treatment.

A similar measure in Michigan has been credited with significantly cutting recidivism.

Other pieces of the law would provide state funds for local police departments to give bonuses to long-serving officers. And yet another piece would increase the requirements for a DWI offender to have an ignition interlock removed from their vehicle.

The House Judiciary Committee approved it on a vote of 10-1, with Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Grants, the only dissenter after raising concerns about how the bonuses for police would be awarded.

The package of bills heads next to a vote by the full House.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.